The doors at Columbia Falls Junior High School will remain closed at least through the end of the week after coronavirus-related staff shortages reached a tipping point on Monday.
Ten staff members at the junior high are at home either because they have tested positive for COVID-19, have been identified as a close contact of someone with a positive test, or are experiencing symptoms similar to those caused by the virus. School District 6 Superintendent Dave Wick said the district is dealing with the same shortage of substitute teachers felt elsewhere in the Flathead Valley and that school employees had already been scrambling to cover open classrooms before five new staff absences were identified Monday night.
The outbreaks are not just limited to staff. Around 65 junior high students are currently at home, as are more than 100 at the high school, and three entire kindergarten classrooms in the district are also quarantined at home. Like most local school districts, Columbia Falls began the school year by offering its students an option for in-person or remote learning, and while a majority chose to return to school, the number of “homebound” students currently absent because of a positive test, quarantine or COVID-19 symptoms is on the rise.
“We started the year with a tremendous team effort on mitigation with screening, masks, extra cleaning, all the things that have been recommended and that’s worked well,” Wick said. “But it continues to get more difficult as cases rise in the county — that’s where our students are.”
Flathead County reported 104 new cases of COVID-19 on Nov. 9, and the county has averaged more than 105 new cases per day in November. The county averaged just over 71 cases per day in October and only 30 per day in September.
“We’re a microcosm of the community so we’re going to see the numbers increase as they increase outside our doors,” Wick said.
The spread of COVID-19 within classroom settings has been limited, including in Columbia Falls, but some evidence of spread is starting to appear in schools, particularly within activities. Mitigation measures are also in place for student activities, but in some cases, like athletic teams, mask wearing and social distancing is impossible.
Wick said the district will continue to closely monitor case levels, quarantines and available staff, and make a decision on reopening the junior high based on that data. The “homebound” student total at the high school is also a concern, and while a number of those students are scheduled to return this week, there is still a chance that new cases and quarantines could outpace the number of students who come back.
“There is a tipping point where it would get to where you need to take a break,” Wick said. “We’re getting closer and closer to it.”
Education officials, in consultation with the Flathead City-County Health Department, made the decision to open schools to in-person learning this fall with an understanding that teaching students through a computer screen — as was done in the spring when the governor mandated school closures — was far less effective than in a classroom, and that forcing students to remain home had massive ripple effects on parents, guardians and their employers. Wick said in-person learning continues be the best option for serving students and their families, but as absences rise and teachers are asked to juggle both in-person and remote students, the balance between education and safety is becoming more difficult.
“It’s complicated because we have a remote population that’s doing remote all the time … then a new category of students had been in the class, so it’s a tremendous burden on our teachers,” Wick said. “It’s a wide variety of things that teachers are shouldering in a different way to try and serve (students). It’s a different job right now.”
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